San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

August 9th, 2008
Points: Rangers are only pretending, but it’s fun to pretend

Points: A sports column
Editor at Large

The Major League Baseball season in Texas began under the radar, has remained there to this day and, now that football practice has begun, that’s where it shall stay.

More’s the pity, because it’s actually turning out kind of fun. That is, it’s half fun. The no-fun half is assessed against the Houston Astros, who have surprised no one with their dreadful pitching while surprising everyone with their dreadful hitting.

But the Texas Rangers are on the fringe of the American League playoff picture, and no one saw that coming, either. The Rangers are a deeply flawed ball club accidentally contending for the AL wildcard position despite inconsistent pitching and spotty defense.

Any club that hits like the Rangers, though, is bound to win a few, and if the pitching is only fair it will win a lot. Since the end of April, the Rangers are 50-37, even after Friday night’s loss to the Baltimore Orioles put them on a three-game losing streak.

No one in or out of Texas even begins to believe the Rangers will make the playoffs, but it’s fun to see the Rangers try. As of Wednesday morning, they stood only 4 1/2 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the wildcard position, then they fell two games further behind with consecutive losses to the New York Yankees, allowing the Bombers to leave Arlington with a four-game split.

To make the playoffs, the Rangers would have to surge past three clubs that are much better, both in the traditions and on the field. No imagination has the power to see the Rangers overcoming the Yankees, Red Sox or Minnesota Twins.

But the Rangers are in the picture, and that makes their games matter, at least for the time being. Their four-game series with the Yankees approached playoff intensity, and the Rangers might have sent a strong signal by winning three, or even all four, except they were no match for the great Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning Wednesday or Thursday.

Chances are, the Rangers will return to earth next week when they play the Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, two of the AL’s better pitching staffs. The Rangers are 0-4 this year against Boston and 2-4 against Tampa, largely because their pitching staff is such easy pickings.

The Rangers are, in fact, by far, the easiest club in the majors to score against. They’ve allowed 690 runs, 60 more than any other major league club and 120 more than any other American League club. In the real world, the Rangers would have one of the five worst records in the AL, but their world appears to have suspended the laws of reality and turned them into a marginal playoff contender.

Credit the Rangers offense, which has scored 652 runs (no other AL club has scored 600), and frequently blows up such displays as to overwhelm any amount of poor Texas pitching. The Rangers are kings of the 8-7 victory, 23-12 in games decided by one run. Somewhere along the line, the Rangers have slugged their way to five or six wins when they should have lost, and that’s just enough to create the illusion of being a contender.

Baseball often produces such seasons in which a flawed club wakes up some time in August with a mathematical prayer, and also seasons in which a good club just can’t buy a break. They say the breaks even out in baseball over the course of a year, but the breaks in baseball really run their course over two or three years. This year, the Rangers are riding the breaks, winning despite their faults, and no one can fault them for that.

The season began with the Rangers just thinking in terms of fielding a representative club while the contenders of the future develop in their farm system. The pitching staff still is developing in the farm system, but the hitting prospects are beginning to make their presence felt right now. Combine them with a couple acquisitions like Josh Hamilton and Milton Bradley, then throw in the established middle infield hitters Michael Young and Ian Kinsler, and the Rangers suddenly are baseball’s most productive offense.

Young, Kinsler, Bradley and Hamilton all made the American League All-Star team this year and the Rangers, at their best, feature that foursome as the top four hitters in their lineup. Despite their spotty pitching, the Rangers don’t fall behind early, which was their custom last year, and their batting order insures that they’re almost never out of a game when they do fall behind.

The Rangers clearly miss Bradley, who has missed all of August with a strained quadriceps. It is expected that Bradley will be back in the lineup this weekend as the designated hitter, and not a moment too soon. With their 9-1 loss in Baltimore Friday, the Rangers have uncharacteristically slumped to one run in their last 20 innings. Bradley, who leads the AL with a .320 batting average and a 1.037 OPS, will give them a boost.

Hamilton wowed the baseball world with his display in the home run hitting contest at Yankee Stadium during the All-Star break, but he has wowed the Rangers all year with his 27 homers and league-leading 108 RBI. While Hamilton stands eighth among present AL players with his .918 OPS, Kinsler is 15th at .872. An average AL club would have one player among the top 15. The Rangers have three.

Then, we see the surprises. Outfielder David Murphy has 74 RBI this year after coming over from the Red Sox last summer in a trade for Eric Gagne. Chris Davis came up at midseason to play first base, hitting 11 homers with a .928 OPS in 138 at-bats. The Rangers don’t even miss fragile third baseman Hank Blalock because Ramon Vazquez is hitting .320 with an .871 OPS.

Hamilton, Kinsler, Davis and Murphy are all glimpses of the future, Young is signed for the long term, and, if the Rangers decide to keep him, Bradley is still only 30. Some of the other hitters who have been up for at least a minute or two, players like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, German Duran, Max Ramirez and Taylor Teagarden, are also glimpses of the future. So are the Rangers farm clubs in Oklahoma City, Frisco, Clinton and Spokane, all of which either are in first place today or already won a division half.

Some day, the Rangers suppose, pitchers like Scott Feldman, Josh Rupe, Eric Hurley, Warner Madrigal, Matt Harrison, Douglas Mathis and Luis Mendoza will be major league winners, rather than just major league pitchers, and the depth of pitching prospects in the Texas organization is the envy of most others.

The Rangers really weren’t planning on contention for another two or three years. It wasn’t supposed to happen this year and, in a serious sense, it hasn’t. But the Rangers are banging on the door, anyway, making the Texas baseball season halfway fun.

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